Plant proteins: what’s coming through the pipeline next

While using them for meat alternatives are front of mind, the ingredients can also help to make some popular products healthier.

22 October 2018
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image credit: Getty Images

From 3D printing to new ingredients and different ways to use old favourites, the research into plant proteins continues to ramp up.

Food Spark has previously reported on plant protein happenings from the Spanish start-up Foods for Tomorrow using soy to create fibrous plant-based protein to pea protein muscling up bakery goods and sweet proteins from fruit being placed as potential sugar replacements.

So what are the latest innovations?

3D proteins

While things like sushi and insects have been 3D printed, Italian start-up NovaMeat has discovered a way to “bio-hack” plant-based proteins to give them a meaty texture.

Medical scientist Giuseppe Scionti used a mix of rice and pea proteins in his prototypes, but said other inputs such as seaweed could be used to create a piece of ‘meat’ that looked, tasted and felt like a traditional fibrous beef steak. He said the tech could be applied to other meats too, like chicken, pork, fish and even rabbit.

But while Scionti may have mouthfeel under control, the appearance of his 3D-printed plant-protein steak still needs work. He said it currently looks more like a strawberry-flavoured gummy sweet than a juicy beef steak, though appearance wasn’t a priority during initial stages of development.

Using a 3D printer also offered advantages over traditional food production techniques such as moulding and generating textures without the use of high temperatures or pressure that can impact the proteins and reduce the nutritional content. There was also scope for personalisation and customising the nutritional properties of the product to the needs of the consumer, he said.

Scionti predicted that plant-based proteins have a bigger immediate future in food compared to cultured meat.

“I believe that the plant-based products will be the ones to register the first and exponential growth, due to the fact that clean [meat] might be subjected to regulations depending on the countries, and due to the inherent limitations in… scaling-up the product in terms of time and costs,” he told Food Spark’s sister site Food Navigator.

From the pond to the plant

Meanwhile, Californian company Plantible Foods is turning to pond dwellers for a new source of protein. It’s working with the aquatic plant known as duckweed (or lemna).

It has designed an agriculture solution to grow crops in a more reliable environment, which have a high yield and can be harvested on a daily basis. The duckweed is delivered direct to the processing facility to extract the protein.

“If you look at the more traditional plant-based proteins, many of them are subject to annual crop cycles. Meaning that with global climate happening and thereby creating these unpredictable weather patterns, the yields of these crops can be unpredictable because you have only one shot to plant,” co-founder Tony Martens commented.

Plantible Foods uses a cold-press extraction process to access the organic and white protein ingredient, which acts just like an egg white, according to the company, while also being neutral in taste and colour and free from the top eight allergens.

During the next two years it plans to scales up its production and work with food scientists to develop ways to incorporate duckweed into new food formulations, but targets will include dairy and meat alternative products, as well as other health and wellness categories.

Duckweed
image credit: Getty Images

Transforming empty calories

Defatted sunflower seeds, which are the dry matter leftover after oil extraction from the seeds, are also being targeted as a new plant-based protein flour – an ingredient that would normally end up in the bin. Planetarians was spun out of a company that was working to develop meal replacements in the beverage sector, when it stumbled upon the low cost of defatted sunflower seeds.

“I remember I used to pay $5,000 per metric tonne of soy protein, here I could pay only $170. It’s 30 times less expensive,” Planetarians founder Aleh Manchuliantsau said.

It took 18 months of development to iron out problems like breaking down the fibre content to make it palatable to humans and getting rid of the ingredient’s green colour. The result was a gluten-free flour called SunMeal, which is suitable to use in baking mixes, baked foods and snacks, but provides a more dense texture than regular flour.

“We’ve been experimenting in our test kitchen with everything from pancake mixes, pizza crust, burger buns, protein bars, pasta and more,” Manchuliantsau said.

“The taste and texture of our product compared to all-purpose flavour is quite similar. Swapping out a third of all-purpose flour for our flour keeps the taste and texture in line with products made from 100% wheat, doubling the protein and fibre content.”

In terms of colour, the end product will be darker than if traditional all-purpose flour is used. “Our ingredient is best thought of as a way to enrich common foods lacking nutrition. Those containing empty calories can be transformed into far healthier options without sacrificing taste,” Manchuliantsau added.

The company also created sunflower crisps that are being sold on Amazon, which contain triple the amount of protein, double the amount of fibre and 70% less fat than the standard potato variety, he added.

The protein industry is ripe for disruption, according to Manchuliantsau. “In addition to feeding a growing population, concerns about climate change and health issues are driving the choices (and thus prices) consumers make when purchasing foods containing plant-based proteins,” he said.

image credit: Getty Images

Chickpeas creating clearer labels

Competition seems to be heating up in the chickpea protein space too. Food Spark previously wrote about Virginia-based company Nutriati and its development of a new chickpea-based protein, but Israeli outfit Innovopro is also getting on the act.

Innovopro has developed a patented method to process chickpea protein to offer it as a functional ingredient. Its bland flavour means chickpea protein can be used across a number of applications, said CEO Taly Nechushtan, including in non-dairy products, energy bars and sports nutrition. “It is very soluble so you can put it into a dry blend beverage to ready to drink, as well as meat analogues,” she said.

In fact, the company has developed a number of finished products in its own lab, including egg-free mayonnaise, puddings, vegan ice cream, non-dairy milk, veggie burger and a baked snack.

Chickpea protein could be used to clean up the ingredients list as well, according to Nechushtan.

“The functional properties of chickpea protein means you can actually take out some unwanted ingredients in the ingredients list: emulsifiers, stabilisers, more chemical products or ingredients that consumers cannot even pronounce – four to five ingredients – and add only one: chickpea protein,” she said.

This means that while currently chickpea protein is at the high end of the cost scale for plant proteins, if you take the overall cost of a product it will actually be competitively priced, according to Nechushtan.

“When industry look at the pricing they look at the price per serving. Because you can take out other ingredients in your formulation, it actually brings the final cost down so that it will almost be the same. You will have a cleaner label, you will have a healthier product, for the same cost,” she explained.

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